One of the things I've been thinking about a lot lately is whether there is room for a kind of belief that doesn't require evidence or certainty, but is still useful.
Obviously we believe many things without having absolute proof: for instance, I don't believe that I'm in the Matrix, although I can't be absolutely certain. I just have no evidence that I am, and I don't bother wasting brain space on the possibility that it's true. Let's say I'm 99% sure I'm not in the Matrix, but I act like I'm 100% sure because at that level of certainty I see no reason not to round off.
Other things, we believe because we have good proof, far from certainty, but still, it seems more likely than not. For instance, plate tectonics. I believe it because I learned it in school. I know that the scientific community has good evidence that tectonic plates move, and I know some of what that evidence is. However, I also know that the scientific community is sometimes wrong, and that perhaps 50 years from now we'll have a much better explanation for earthquakes and mountains and so on. And I know that I may not be in a position to be completely sure my teacher wasn't oversimplifying the question to me. But I have no reason to hedge every time I say "the continents drift" because there's no real risk to believing it, and because the evidence is still in favor of it. Still, the degree of uncertainty I have suggests I should be open to listening to an argument that it isn't so.
But can it be right -- can it even be possible -- to say, the evidence is not in favor of a certain theorem, but I will hold it anyway? To me, saying "the evidence isn't in favor of x" is the same as saying "I don't think x is true"!
However, I've done a little reading around and a lot of people talk about myth as being the thing that has a truth-value despite not having evidential proof. For instance, this article says that a person can believe in evolution in a factual sense, but believe in young-earth creation in a religious sense, and these beliefs can be non-conflicting because deep down the person accepts the first belief as fact but the other only as myth.
I like this idea in theory, but my attempts to dig at it a bit are causing me to suspect it's really hokum. Have you ever met anyone who believed in young-earth creationism but also believed in evolution? Everyone I have ever known who believed in the biblical creation account also felt it was crucial to debunk evolution -- because they see, like I do, that the two explanations are contradictory. The source of their belief is religious, but the end belief is a factual one. And that raises the question, "Is it reasonable to expect only a religious level of proof for a factual level of certainty?"
What I mean is that religious people feel the standard of proof for religious belief should be lower than the proof you have for science. Most religious people feel uncertain or doubtful sometimes, but instead of considering abandoning their religion -- as a scientist would if he felt doubtful about his hypothesis -- they decide instead to cling to it that much more firmly. They say this is what you should do. And then you should use it as the first principle of all your other beliefs and decisions, exactly as you would if you had proven it decisively with testable evidence.
From the article: "Factual beliefs seem to influence the way we
act and think in pretty much all contexts, whereas religious beliefs
have a more circumscribed scope. Even when engaged in pretend play, for
example, children know that they shouldn't really bite the Play-Doh "cookie"; the factual belief that Play-Doh isn't food infiltrates imaginative play."
Most religious people I know would be very upset by the assumption that they should let any other sort of belief trump their religious beliefs when it comes to decisionmaking. They might have slight proof for their beliefs, but they will use those beliefs as the core truth they build their lives on.
But perhaps that's specific of only certain religious groups. Do conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, for instance, treat their religious beliefs as factual while other, less radical, religious people treat theirs as conditional or mythical?
I did some research on progressive Catholics (by joining a Facebook group and asking them) and so far, it seems they also live by their religious beliefs. They use birth control, for instance, not because they know deep down their faith shouldn't trump their scientific knowledge, but because they believe that God is okay with it -- that the rule against it is an addition of a tyrannical hierarchy that God did not intend.
And indeed, my own success has been spotty. I try to pray to a God who I assume is there, even though I am not factually sure he is, and it doesn't seem to work. Trying to adopt a religion as a mythic structure, without believing in it factually, feels impossible. I want to believe there is an afterlife, but by that I mean that I want to have some evidence there is one. Imagining there is one doesn't help me go to sleep at night.
And yet, as a kid, that is exactly what I was able to do! I talked to my toys, my pets, even my toes. I knew they couldn't hear me, but that didn't bother me in the least. I had an entire mythic structure for my life, complete with rules, cosmology, imaginary friends of all kinds. I knew that nothing actually bad would happen if I let the toilet paper tear through the middle instead of along the perforations, or if I used more or less than exactly three squares, but that didn't stop me from feeling as if it would. I knew nothing scary lived in the basement, but in my mind's eye I could see it retreating when I turned on the light. I had an entire cast of characters to keep me company throughout the day: from Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was fascinated by all the modern contraptions around the house, to The Prince, whose main job was to be in love with me and feed me dried apricots. I didn't need to believe in any of these to enjoy their company and the dash of poetry they gave my life.
(My childhood may or may not be typical.)
G. K. Chesterton says this is how the pagan religious worked; that it was all about poetic sensibilities and games, and everyone deep down knew it was a game, but that it would have been gauche to mention the gods weren't real. I am not sure this is true. If the proof that the child knows he's pretending is that (despite all his protestations of its truth) he won't eat the play-doh cookie, then pagans who are only pretending shouldn't ever stick to their religion when it costs them. And yet they performed human sacrifices! The Greeks were much more civilized than the Celts and Phoenecians, but even they sacrificed the fat and entrails from every animal and a splash of every cup of wine. A rich person might do so in fun -- I can't see that a poor person ever would. I think even the pagans performed their religions because they at least thought it was possible they would be in big trouble with the gods if they didn't.
But regardless of whether the pagans of times past did this, I can see how it might be beneficial. A lot of the universe is difficult to understand; trimming it down to a manageable shape that you can easily imagine can help. For instance, many Catholics can't understand the redemption, but they can understand Aslan's sacrifice for Edmund, so that's what they think about. Many people who think hell doesn't include flames still imagine flames when they think of hell. It's a shorthand -- a mental picture that makes thinking easier.
Meanwhile a materialist who does not believe in free will still acts as if he does. He'll use words like "I decided to go to the park," and perhaps in his mind he'll have an image of what it means to decide, and he probably is not thinking of deterministic processes reaching a decision-point in his brain. He probably just imagines he's deciding, because it's kind of impossible to think about the way we act without that sort of structure.
Many of the things we use to motivate ourselves work in this way. I have promised myself not to eat lunch till I've finished this post, so I imagine that I "can't" eat lunch right now, even though of course I know I could. I have imaginary conversations with people I know -- not because I think they can hear my thoughts when they're not around, but because sometimes it's easier to hash out ideas with Imaginary John or Imaginary Dad than to keep my thoughts more prosaic. (Again, just me?)
And yet none of these things have the force or vibrancy of the myths I half-believed as a child. Often I hear the argument, "Isn't the world barren and unexciting if you imagine it's all like a gigantic clock? Shouldn't there be heroism and love and beauty out there?" But what if there isn't? Is there really any saving the idea that there is, to make our lives more beautiful and meaningful, if we don't actually believe there is?
But perhaps the universe is not to blame for any sense of meaninglessness I feel; while I don't feel depressed, I have noticed a flatness of affect lately which is perhaps a phase that will pass. Certainly there were times when the vastness of the universe itself awed me. Evolution does not seem unromantic to me; neither does the vastness of space, the delicate structures of the cell, the life cycle of the dung beetle. It's all super awesome, in the literal sense -- I am awed by it. I don't need to imagine little angels pushing the planets into their orbits to be awed. Think of the weight of a planet, perpetually falling toward the sun, perpetually missing it. The planet you are on, right now, is falling. At the same time it is hurtling so fast that it misses. It's spinning at tremendous speed; the stars would just be flashing by, except that the planet itself is so vast that you can't see the movement.
There is romance in that too. I think in order to live, at least to live happily, we have to have that sort of view of something in the real world -- "real" being defined as the world which we, on a factual level, truly believe in.
That said, does myth help? Is there any way in which myth can help me? I still am not sure -- and my plan, if I can carve out the time, is to examine a few myths that I have come up with which I have sometimes found helpful.